Updated: Aug 14
The journalist Elizabeth Winkler wrote a controversial article for The Atlantic in which she argued that Shakespeare didn’t write ‘his’ plays at all; they were more likely penned by a woman.
And all hell broke loose.
It wasn’t actually that crazy of an idea. For starters, we’ve known for a very long time that there’s an odd lack of evidence William Shakespeare ever wrote anything. As Winkler observed, “more than 70 documents that exist show [Shakespeare] as an actor, a shareholder in a theater company, a moneylender, and a property investor. They show that he dodged taxes, was fined for hoarding grain during a shortage, pursued petty lawsuits, and was subject to a restraining order. The profile is remarkably coherent, adding up to a mercenary impresario of the Renaissance entertainment industry. What’s missing is any sign that he wrote.”
She also points out that Shakespeare’s works have richly developed female characters and she quotes the famous art critic John Ruskin as saying, “Shakespeare has no heroes—he has only heroines.” Could that be because these plays were written by a woman?
Winkler notes that William Shakespeare, the actor whose name appeared on the title pages of so many brilliant plays, “wasn’t educated past the age of 13” and never traveled to any of the countries featured in the plays. But Emilia Bassano, a contemporary of Shakespeare who published a number of brilliant poems in her own name, lead a life that “encompassed the breadth of the Shakespeare canon: its low-class references and knowledge of the court; its Italian sources and Jewish allusions; its music and feminism.”
William Shakespeare owned property, put on and performed in plays, and left a detailed will. Yet his will did not leave a library to anyone, nor even a single book, and it made no mention of his sonnets or plays. In contrast, Emilia Bassano’s life was literary and erudite. She certainly could have written the plays and allowed Shakespeare to take credit for them.
The thesis is intriguing, but I’m much more interested in the unorthodoxy of this thesis than in trying to prove it beyond doubt. Consider the backlash to it.
Shortly after Winkler presented her thesis, Dominic Greene of The Spectator declared, “If you believe that Shakespeare was not Shakespeare… then you have succumbed to a conspiracy theory.”
James Shapiro of Columbia University complained in The Atlantic that, “To speculate about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays is to pursue conspiracy theories.” And Shapiro proclaimed in The Federalist that, “I take a very dim view of conspiracy theories alleging that William Shakespeare didn’t write his own plays.”
The backlash had begun, its banner held high by the literary establishment. Winkler was the author of a conspiracy theory. I find this term startling, because, well, where’s the conspiracy? As Wikipedia so ably sums it up, “A conspiracy theory is an explanation … that invokes a conspiracy by sinister and powerful groups, often political in motivation.”
Is there a secret conspiracy by women to co-opt the legacy of a man by falsely attributing his work? Is this the opening salvo in some insidious plot to replace white men, the rightful fathers of our cultural legacy, with female and BIPOC substitutes?
If not, then why in the world do they call her thesis a conspiracy?
What I love about this reaction is how it reveals something deeply disturbing (to white men) about the possibility that the greatest writing in the English language could have been penned by a woman. And not even an aristocratic, Anglo woman, but instead a striving daughter of a low-status musician whose family was Italian and Jewish and whose skin was Mediterranean and notably darker than her English contemporaries. Primitive prejudices seem to have been awoken in the backlash we’re seeing.
Unorthodox thinking does that.
Wikipedia goes on to point out that, “Historically, conspiracy theories have been closely linked to prejudice, propaganda, witch hunts, wars, and genocides” and are “strongly believed by the perpetrators of terrorist attacks.” To call an idea a conspiracy theory is a shorthand way of saying it’s dangerous.
George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, imagines that Big Brother watches closely for “symptoms of unorthodoxy.” In Christianity, the opposite of orthodoxy is heresy. In today’s Republican party, calling out Donald Trump’s big lie is not only unorthodox, it’s heretical and a likely way to bring one’s political career to a bloodied end. Unorthodoxy is dangerous for anyone who speaks it simply because it’s perceived as dangerous by so many others.
None other than Nicolo Machiavelli (The Prince) warns that “the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions.” For this reason, “There is nothing…more perilous to conduct…than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.” And yet, where would we be without those who were bold enough to champion the unorthodox?
In the 1880s, the press was full of quotes from eminent scientists concerning the ludicrous work of Thomas Edison whose crazy ideas about an electric lightbulb would never work. Not only did they doubt him, they seemed to take deep and personal offense. It was as if he were the perpetrator of a sinister lightbulb conspiracy.
Similarly, when the Golden Gate Bridge was initially proposed, the newspapers were filled with angry objections.
Recall that famous quote from Machiavelli about how “the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions.” This was certainly true about abolition, the movement to eliminate slavery in the United States.
Historynet.com (‘The Abolitionist Movement’) reminds us that, “In 1833 in Philadelphia, the first American Anti-Slavery Society Convention convened. In a backlash, anti-abolition riots broke out in many northeastern cities, including New York and Philadelphia… Several Southern states… made formal requests to other states to suppress abolition groups and their literature. In Illinois, the legislature voted to condemn abolition societies and their agitation…”
Unorthodoxy always generates backlash. That’s axiomatic. And often the backlash is wildly disproportional. Calling speculation that the author of Shakespeare’s work wasn’t male a conspiracy theory is clearly an overreaction, which makes sense if you think of it as backlash against unorthodoxy itself.
Scholarly quibbles about Shakespeare seem but a tempest in a teapot compared to backlash against progressive ideas concerning LGBTQ+ rights, voter rights, and similar political hot potatoes of today’s news cycle. Certainly, the backlash against these unorthodoxies is far greater. Democrats are labeled as demonic pedophiles. But my fear is that any backlash against unorthodoxy is a backlash against all unorthodoxy.
In the span of history, it is the unorthodox and their unorthodoxies that advance us, that bring about (in Machiavelli’s immortal words) a “new order of things.” So we should be vigilant against even the most trivial backlash. Putting down unorthodoxies is dangerous indeed.
One of the most powerful unorthodox voices of our time is that of Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish environmental activist. Her message is clear and innocent. Certainly, there is nothing mean nor evil about it. And yet the backlash she’s generated is extreme. Scan the headlines and you’ll see her called a Nazi and subjected to constant threats and verbal attacks. It’s hard to see why so many critics mock and revile a teen who, upon receiving a $1 million Euro prize, promptly donated all of it to charity. But hers is a voice of unorthodoxy and so is bound to attract backlash.
Openness to experience is one of the Big Five personality traits, and yet it receives relatively little attention compared to others such as introversion/extraversion or neuroticism (which maps to anxiety and depression). I would argue that openness and its opposite, narrow-mindedness, are the most important physiological factors at work in our world today. Why? Because unless and until we can overcome the general lack of openness in our species, we will fail to salvage the human experiment and will preside over the demise of democracy and the poisoning of our planet in our lifetimes.
A Scientific American article by Luke D. Smillie of the University of Melbourne observes that “open-minded people do indeed process information in different ways and may literally see the world differently from the average person.” In other words, they are unorthodox.
Something you cannot find in any Google search seems to be this: What percentage of our population is high on openness and thus quick to embrace unorthodoxies? I don’t know why we don’t treat this as paramount, but to me, it’s the question of our era. Our fate will be the direct result of a struggle between the forces of orthodoxy and those who see alternative futures. How many troops are there on each side of this epic battle?
As it happens, I’ve worked in the field of assessments for many years. I develop questionnaires to measure things like leadership and negotiating style as a lead author for Human Resource Development Press. And one of my projects was the creation of a personality self-assessment based on the Big Five which has been used to measure openness to experience in thousands of subjects. What I observed was what you might expect: A bell curve with the bulk of people clustered near the middle of the scale and far fewer at the extremes. Maybe ten percent or fewer are quite high on the openness scale, and another ten percent are quite low.
The challenge lies in that bulky, chubby middle of the curve where people are near average in their openness to new ideas. They might eventually come around, but at first, they find unorthodoxies scary and suspicious. And so they are all too easily swayed by the extremists at the low end of the scale.
It may be human to resist change and engage in exaggerated backlash. However, we don’t have the luxury of waiting for the nervous to come around. Not while democracy is being undermined in dozens of statehouses, schools are facing book and history bans, and climate is raging out of control. What we need to do urgently is reset our psychological and social response to the unorthodox. We need to become an open-minded species. We need to ask why not when we hear something new.
Perhaps speculating that Shakespeare was a woman doesn’t seem compelling compared to headline-grabbing major issues. Yet here in this simple little example we see laid bare a primitive upwelling of condemnation and overreaction to a new idea. If we could just open our minds to simple, small new ideas and stop stomping on them simply because they are unorthodox, then maybe, just maybe, we could learn to contemplate more fundamental and transformative unorthodoxies as well.
I sure hope so!
Alex Hiam is the author of Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key and Silent Lee and the Oxford Adventure (available now on Amazon), and has written about and taught creative thinking for many years.